At 2.26am yesterday morning I called it a day (or I suppose more accurately a night) on the Lakeland 100. I had been out nearly 33 hours, covered 88 miles, and more than 20,000 of the 23,000 feet of climbing involved in the event. So near, devastatingly disappointing.............well, actually no. I was neither injured nor ill, I had made a few mistakes along the way but they probably wouldn't have affected the outcome, I just reached a point where I was simply too tired to make any further progress. A couple of hours sleep could have (and subsequently did) put me right, but I didn't have enough time left on the clock for that solution, so I stopped. No hard feelings, it was a good adventure and I learned a lot. One up to the mountains but I'm nothing if not persistent, I'll be back.
Even though I had checked out around 80% of the ground before, I still didn't realise what an inspiring course this is when you put it all together, taking in almost every valley in the Lake District in a great meandering loop following many of the age-old pass routes and from which you could see every major lake except Thirlmere if it was daylight! There are 15 checkpoints in the valleys with no great distances between them (the longest stretch is barely 10 miles) but of course this means there are15+ climbs of varying difficulty. Starting at Coniston, the first 5 stages to Braithwaite follow rough mountain tracks with often tricky navigation, half of which are taken in the dark. Three gentler stages on tracks kinder to the feet, but still with over 4000ft of climbing between them, lead to the main "half way" checkpoint at Dalemain (60 miles). From there the easiest stage leads in 7 miles to the last major climb, after which the navigation problems should be over but darkness will be approaching again and a series of shorter climbs on easier but still stony tracks gets you to the finish back in Coniston. It's a tough outing, with a cut-off time at the finish of 40 hours. Of the 123 starters this year, 70 won through to the end, the highest percentage ever. Stuart Mills' win in just over 24 hours was a class performance, only 11 finishers made it in under 30 hours, 16 got home in the last two hours. So how was my trip?
Well we were set on our way by the legendary Joss Naylor at 5.30 on Friday evening in unexpected sunshine, to tackle immediately the 2000ft of ascent over the Walna Scar pass. Everyone at my end of the field walked the ups and we passed and repassed each other chatting with the enthusiasm of the start. At the top, the views over to Sca Fell and the other central fells were stunning in the evening sunshine. Down the other side was a wonderfully runnable blast and I reached the Seathwaite checkpoint (6.4 miles) at 7.15. The next stage over to Boot in Eskdale was again under 7 miles and barely 1000ft of up, but over some of the worst tracks on the course, bogs, boulders, bracken and tree-roots. Everyone got wet feet here, and if you didn't carry spare socks they stayed wet until Dalemain, 40-odd miles further on. The last mile or so were on good tracks down the Esk valley and jogging I caught up with some competitors walking. Come on guys, there's plenty of ground ahead that you can't run, make the most of it here - two came with me who turned out to be Barry and David who had come up from, wait for it, Suffolk to do the race ("We don't train on hills, we don't have any"). We jogged into the Boot checkpoint at 8.48, and the routine for me at least was now established. Quick drink (tea if possible, water otherwise), a bite to eat, top up water bottle, get any gear for next section (headlamp and jacket this time, we expected it to get dark and then cold) then out. But this was still taking rather too long - 10 minutes here.
Barry and David decided to stick with me for a bit as they neither knew the course nor had a GPS, so we set out onto the moor. The three miles and 900ft up to the high point just beyond Burnmoor Tarn were easy - it was just light enough to follow the track on mostly springy grass, and the hill was long and gentle. The two miles down to Wasdale Head were a different deal; we finally had to put on our torches to avoid holes and boulders, and the way down becomes steeper and very rocky, with recent rain turning the track into a stream. When we reached the Wasdale checkpoint at 11.05pm it already seemed like a lot of work had gone in to get a total of eighteen and a half miles on the clock. On the plus side the night was clear and dry, even warm so jackets had come off again fairly quickly. Another 10 minute stop at Wasdale saw us out to face the most continuously strenuous section of the route, the two stages over to Braithwaite. We had picked up another David ("Dave") by now so our little team of four made our way steadily up Black Sail Pass. This is beautifully engineered to combat erosion on this side so although fairly steep the climb is not too bad. The descent down the other side is just the opposite; difficult enough in daylight it becomes very trying at night. Stony zig-zags, bits of grassy trod, little rock steps, the sort of ground where you never take exactly the same line twice. Are you sure this is the right way my new East Anglian friends asked several times, especially at the little rocky scoop which was one of my remembered landmarks, but I'd been there twice before and was happy. A quick check on the direction to find the footbridge at the bottom (the embryonic River Liza is quite deep and fast even up here) and we were down and along to the famous Black Sail youth hostel, fast asleep in the middle of nowhere. The climb back up to Scarth Gap to complete the 2400ft of climb for the stage seemed easy, the bouldery descent to Butteremere lake less so and we were glad to hit the undulating lakeside track, the first easily runnable ground for miles. We jogged steadily the length of the lake, around its end, and up through the sleeping village of Buttermere into a warm hall, to be greeted by friendly faces and mushroom soup.
The next stage to Braithwaite has better ground underfoot but does all its 2500ft of climbing in one go, following narrow traversing trods for over 4 miles. Two critical turnings must not be missed and in spite of the fine night I used the GPS to make sure. The reward is that once you have reached the high point at another Sail Pass (though not Black this time), it's downhill all the way to Braithwaite and most of it runnable. We rolled into the checkpoint (33.9 miles) at 4.36am, and I was relieved to have got the toughest third of the course done in a reasonable time (I was aiming for around 5am) and still feeling good. This point had the first hot meals and we tucked into pasta and tea for breakfast, but again stayed too long, nearly 30 minutes.
It was light as we left Braithwaite. Dave had stayed on longer but David and Barry were still in the game as we followed two longish stages (16 miles total) first to Blencathra Centre then Dockray, with runnable tracks and steady gradients. The last three miles of the "Old Coach Road" to Dockray felt a bit Lairig-Mor-like, with the track winding visibly into the distance for miles ahead. David struggled at times but normally caught up if Barry and I waited a bit, then seemed to get stronger again. A final 10 miles, through woods, climbing to a wonderful balcony track through the bracken high above Ullswater, then fields and a mile or two of country lane, led us to the 60 mile point at Dalemain at 1.38pm. Here we could pick up our drop bags and luxuriate in dry socks and shirts, before taking in some more pasta, rice pudding, and of course the magic tea. The "Lakeland 50", a simultaneous event, started from here at 12.30pm, first doing a local 4 mile loop and then heading out on the same route as us for the final 44 miles to Coniston; because of the timings we would be catching the slower runners on the 50 from here on. Both David and Barry had very sore feet, but by the time I said I was ready to go they were up for it so we headed out again together. I had agreed with them that we wouldn't run again because we had time to walk to the finish, but even then I sort of wished I had run a bit more in the earlier stages.
The next stage is very easy, pleasantly through nearly flat fields alongside the River Eamon to Pooley Bridge, then a gentle climb of around 500ft or so on a good track to the Cockpit right at the Northern end of the High Street range, and an equally gentle descent over the next few miles back to the edge of Ullswater at Howtown. As we were going up the hill we were caught by John Vernon, who we had seen on and off at checkpoints since pretty well the start of the race, but who up until then was travelling with another two or three runners. He told us they had suggested he pushed on as he was going stronger than they were. Now I've been aware of John for a while, and even met him without realising it on the Hardmoors 55, when he was running the Bloworth Crossing checkpoint, holed up in his tiny tent against the elements in what was on that particular day a very bleak location. He is a very experienced ultra runner (7 West Highland Ways, 9 Fellsmans - or should that be Fellsmen, UTMB, you get the picture) and also a fellow climber, so we chatted away as you do when you have had some similar experiences but never met before. A mile or two before Howtown I noticed that David and Barry were not only not with us but nowhere in sight. I felt a bit responsible because I knew they were nervous about the navigation over to Mardale so I said I would wait a bit, and John stopped too. Before too long, David appeared to say that Barry's feet were now so bad that he couldn't carry on. As they had committed to the event together, David would pull out as well and retire with him at Howtown. We comiserated, he wished us luck and we went our separate ways. They must have gone very slowly to the checkpoint because it is on an out and back leg, and John and I were there for at least ten minutes without seeing them. I didn't see them again but I enjoyed the miles we had spent together; with no hills to train on I think they put in a pretty fine effort to get as far as they did.
John and I left Howtown to tackle one of the biggest hills on the route, 2000ft plus up to High Kop. But perversely it didn't seem too hard because it was on grass nearly all the way, a bit wet at times but not boggy so we made steady progress to the top. The weather had turned by now though. The sunshine of yesterday evening had disappeared into a dull morning, and now it was starting to rain, with the clouds getting lower in all directions. From High Kop to Low Kop it would have been good to run but I was starting to tire and didn't want to blow it so we kept up a good brisk walk over the high ground, then jogged/shambled down through the bracken to the Haweswater reservoir. The route then follows an undulating rocky track along the lake side to Mardale Head, the next checkpoint at 75 miles, which we reached at 7.20pm. It's simply a roadhead here, no buildings and no place to put a tent, the checkpoint was just a landrover but thankfully with a stove in the back, so we had our soup and tea standing in the rain which was now getting a bit more persistent. Hats, gloves, jackets went on and we set out into the gathering gloom.
Of all the climbs on the course, the one I was looking forward to least was this next one from Mardale Head up to Gatescarth Pass. It's only about 1100ft up, on a broad track with no navigation difficulties at all, but it's steep, rocky, and I had reccied it on a particularly bleak day in November last year, since when it had obviously grown some in my mind; I was pleased to reach the top, and I knew that there were no climbs as big as this still to come. It was cold and wet descending, John stopped to put on overtrousers, so we made our separate ways down to Sadgill, agreeing at the bottom that Longsleddale had been, well..... long. There is a short ascent from Sadgill at the end of Longsleddale over to Kentmere. It's on the now ubiquitous rocky track (we passed a landrover going up that looked as if he was going to fail), barely 500ft of ascent, but I had forgotten about it so wasn't expecting it and found it very hard. Even going down the far side I was lagging 20 or 30 yards behind John, and admitted that I was struggling. For the first time on the course I started to feel queasy, probably as a result of the amount of jarring rocky descent we had done, something I needed to sort out. I determined to put things right at the next checkpoint. We checked into the warm, welcoming glow of Kentmere Institute (81 miles) at 10.13pm, just as it went dark. I told John that I would be a while and that he should push on when he was ready.
I had a cup of tea with a couple of Succeed electrolyte caps (I had been taking these pretty regularly all through the race but felt a boost might be required), took my shoes off, changed my wet shirt for a dry one and lay down on a bench to doze for 15 minutes. I'm not sure if I actually went to sleep, but I came round feeling a lot better. There was pasta with tomato sauce on offer so I had a bowl of this and another two cups of tea. I wasn't 100% (well who is after 80 miles?) but I could definitely go on. Just as I was putting my shoes on I was surprised to see John standing in front of me; he too had meant to lie down for just a few minutes but then went to sleep for half an hour! We were back in business and set out for the next obstacle, the Garburn Pass. This rises about 900ft up, yes you've got it, a rocky track, along a flat bit at the top with man-sized puddles to be avoided, then a similar height drop down to Troutbeck on probably the rockiest track of this second half of the route. For the first time it got misty and although the track was obvious some of the puddles almost took us by surprise. But we were going well, we knew which forks in the track to take without bothering with map or roadbook, and Troutbeck showed up below us fairly soon. We coasted down to the road, then down again over the bridge.
It was on the climb up the road through the village that I first realised I was struggling again. From the bridge at Troutbeck to the highpoint en route to Ambleside the route rises no more than 400ft. My legs felt fine; my stomach felt OK; it was just that putting one foot in front of the other just felt so.......hard. John was now ahead and I concentrated on blanking everything else out and staying with him. But now he was 10 yards ahead. Half a mile later he was 20 yards ahead. I couldn't hold the gap. By High Skelgyll Farm, a couple of miles from Ambleside it was 30 or 40 yards. John held a gate for me; I said I wasn't sure I could get beyond Ambleside, he was strong, he should definitely push on. He had completed the course last year but in 20 minutes over the 40 hours, I knew he could get inside the time from here, so off he went. In the two miles after we parted he gained 17 minutes on me, by the time I got down to Ambleside I knew my race was run. I had covered the last two miles down hill at slower than two miles an hour. From the time I walked into the Lakes Runner shop checkpoint, I had just seven hours to cover the 16 miles to the end. There were three climbs to come, not big, not bad, but enough. With an hour or two's sleep in the warm first I might do it, without I had no chance. It was an easy decision.
Dozing in the shop, waiting for a lift back to Coniston I was conscious of some of the organisation's side of the race. Where was this runner, had so-and-so reached this checkpoint yet? A telephone call from a runner who had lost the track between Kentmere and Troutbeck and was out on a fellside somewhere, he didn't know where. This is the stuff we don't normally see, the race director and his team are the real heroes of the event. A minibus picked up two retirees from the Lakeland 50 and me, collected another from the Chapel Stile checkpoint, and dropped us back to the camping field by the school in Coniston. I didn't have the energy for a shower, but crawled into my sleeping bag in the car and passed out. A couple of hours later I was awake and feeling fine, able to sort myself out. I wandered across to the finish in time to meet John, just finished in an hour under the time limit. The man knows how to do it. I got in the car and drove home, in time for Sunday lunch with Jan and our daughter Julia visiting from Reading for the weekend. Last night I slept well.
I learned a lot; on the encouraging side I know this is a great event and will become a classic, of course I'll be back; I now seem to know how to manage my eating and drinking to avoid getting sick; I know that barring accidents my legs seem to be able to go on forever. On the things to work on, generally I need to stop less at checkpoints as I did in the West Highland Way - I haven't added my total stop time here, it's too frightening; I should worry a bit less about conserving energy and go a bit quicker in the early stages; these two would give me more of a cushion in case I need to take a real rest later on, because one major thing I have learned from both the Lakeland 100 and the Heart of Scotland is that somewhere between 30 and 35 hours is the longest I can do without sleep and remain effective.
Above all, I had another experience that I won't forget, in countryside that we are so lucky to have in our small island, in the company of the only people who understand what it's like to do what we do. DNF? No, just a training run for next time.